Stan and Jake’s wedding will soon take place on the town green in Frog Ledge, Connecticut, followed by a reception at their beloved Irish pub filled with friends, family, and their four favorite canine companions. Stan just has to endure the traditional girls’ night out first. Male strippers jumping out of gigantic cakes aren’t her preferred entertainment. But the hired hottie never gets around to taking it all off . . . because someone takes him out first with one of Stan’s kitchen knives. A heartbroken Stan recognizes the victim as one of the delivery men from the local farm—who must have been moonlighting for some extra cash. Now the guest list has turned into a suspect list—and Stan’s making a vow to find the killer . . .
Includes Gourmet Pet Food Recipes!
Praise for Purring Around the Christmas Tree
“For fans of pet-themed mysteries, Mugavero pens a purrfect New England Christmas cozy, which also includes gourmet pet treat recipes.”
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Stan Connor hated tears. They were the one emotional act she felt completely ill-equipped to handle, whether they were her own tears or someone else's. When it was her little sister crying, it was worse. And when she was the cause, it was nearly unbearable. Even when Caitlyn was being a drama queen.
"Caitlyn, please stop crying." Stan looked helplessly at her Maine coon, Nutty, who sat on the middle of the coffee table in Stan's comfy little den, watching the histrionics with a barely concealed sneer. He was much better at handling this stuff. Mostly because he had no patience for it. He usually flicked his tail and walked away, but apparently even he didn't want to miss this.
"H-how can I stop crying?" Caitlyn paused, ripped a couple of tissues from the box on the table, and blew her nose loudly. "You're being so unreasonable !"
Stan resisted the urge to pull her own hair out by the roots. She wished the doorbell would ring, or for a fire alarm to sound, or heck, even a tornado warning — not that they got many of those in Frog Ledge, Connecticut. Anything that would save her from her sister's drama would be helpful. "I'm not being unreasonable," she said, trying to sound reasonable. "It's a lovely thought. Truly. I just don't want a traditional bachelorette party. Not everyone who gets married has to have a bachelorette party!"
This set Caitlyn off into a fresh set of wails. "But they should ! Especially when their sister wants to throw it for them! Don't you get it, Krissie? I'll never have another chance to do this ever again. You'd really deprive me of that?"
Now was not the time to point out, for the millionth time, that Stan hated being called Krissie. Or that Caitlyn's life wouldn't end if she didn't throw her sister a bachelorette party. In Stan's opinion, they were overrated, cheesy, and completely unnecessary. A waste of time and dollar bills.
But she'd always been one to buck tradition, while her sister ran into it headlong.
"How about we go out for drinks or something? Or we can go into New York and go to a piano bar? Or a spa?" Stan latched on to that, knowing her sister loved being pampered. But in this case, Caitlyn didn't react. "I really don't need a big production. The wedding is in three weeks. There's so much to do. This doesn't mean I won't throw you a bachelorette party," she hastened to reassure her sister. Caitlyn and her boyfriend Kyle were also engaged. Their wedding had a longer tail, though, because she was planning for a huge shindig even though it was her second time around. Their wedding date was set for December. "You can have whatever you want," Stan said, aware of the semi- pleading note in her voice. "I just don't want the same things."
It sounded like a reasonable argument to Stan. Nutty, now bored with the conversation, flicked his bushy tail, hopped off the table, and strolled out of the room, probably to sprawl across the kitchen floor and wait for dinner, a subtle reminder that this nonsense was cutting into his eating time. He hated when dinner was late.
Maybe Stan could use that as an excuse to stop talking. Time to feed the cats and dogs. She started to rise from her seat on the couch, but Caitlyn's death stare made her sink back down. "We're not done, huh," she said.
"No, we are not done!" Caitlyn cried. "I can't believe you're making me go through all this to do something for my own sister! Who's marrying the man of her dreams. It's not like you'll be doing this again, Krissie. You and Jake are total soulmates. It's a once-and-done thing. Not like my stupid first mistake." She sniffed. "I don't care what you say. We're throwing you a bachelorette party. And that's that." She crossed her arms defiantly. "You don't want me to get Mom involved, do you?"
Stan's head, which had started to hurt at the beginning of this conversation, now throbbed. No, she didn't want her mother involved. She could see her chances of winning this argument slowly spiraling away into a black hole. Better to cut her losses and let Caitlyn do her thing. If she laid down some ground rules, it wouldn't go too far off the rails.
How bad could it be?
"Fine," she said, throwing up her hands in defeat. "Fine, fine, fine. Plan a bachelorette party. But I want it to be here in town. And nothing crazy. Not a ton of people, no cheesy guys, none of that."
Caitlyn let out a squeal and vaulted to her feet. She rushed across the room and threw herself on top of Stan, hugging her. "Thank you! You won't be sorry! We're going to have so much fun, you won't even believe it. You'll wonder why on earth you didn't want to do it in the first place. I'm going to call Brenna right now and start planning. And Nikki! And Izzy, and Amara ... there's so much to do. Thank you, Krissie!"
She raced out of the room and into the hall. A minute later, Stan heard the front door slam.
Stan dropped her face into the pillow. Scruffy, her schnoodle, padded over and nudged Stan's arm with her nose. The dog's sweet brown eyes were anxious. She always knew when her mom was stressed.
Stan raised her head and met Scruffy's eyes. "She thinks I won't be sorry. But guess what? I'm already sorry."CHAPTER 2
"I don't know why I told anyone in the first place." Stan poured a generous portion of wine into her glass, the snap of her wrist causing some of the red liquid to splash on the kitchen counter. "I mean, seriously. We should've just disappeared for the weekend and eloped, then come back and had a huge party. Maybe we should still do that." Stan looked hopefully at her best and oldest friend, wanting approval and encouragement. "Right? Shouldn't I?"
Nikki Manning surveyed her for a long minute, then burst out laughing. "Nice try, Connor. Your mother would have bodyguards on you before you even closed the car door. You don't think she's anticipated you trying that? You don't think she's got people watching the house right now, ready to spring into action at your first false move? You should know your own family better than that."
Stan grabbed a sponge and wiped up the wine spillage. Nikki was exaggerating, of course, but not by much. Her mother would, at the very least, track her down if she tried that. Stan resisted the urge to look out the window to see if she could spot someone doing surveillance.
She'd called Nikki after Caitlyn left last night, desperate and hoping her best friend could help keep her sister in check. Nikki had been expecting the call. Caitlyn had already called her from the car. She wasn't wasting any time or giving Stan a chance to change her mind. So Nikki, being the good friend that she was — and since her boyfriend was home to care for their foster dogs — had jumped in the car and driven the hour to console Stan. Nikki's plan was to stay a few days and help Stan thwart Caitlyn's plan.
"You know, all this talk about how your wedding is your day is crap," Stan said. "None of this is going to be mine, is it? I mean, with my mother and sister both living in town now, and my mother's wedding done, they're all over me." She slumped miserably in a chair at her kitchen table. "I want to get married at Jake's pub. I want a small ceremony with our close friends and the pets. And a big party after. Then I want to go on our honeymoon. That's all I want."
The honeymoon part, at least, was not up for discussion. They'd booked their tickets for two weeks in Ireland before they'd made any of the other plans. Stan wanted to skip ahead to that part.
"Okay," Nikki said. "I don't see why you can't have that, even if you do have to sustain the torture of a Caitlyn-planned bachelorette party."
"Oh, you don't, eh?" Stan took a gulp of wine. "You've met my mother, haven't you?"
Nikki grinned. "On second thought, I guess it might be more of a production."
"You think?" Stan muttered. "Despite the fact that I've had everything planned for months, she told me the other day she's put a hold on three churches on the green and will determine which one is the most elegant." Stan accentuated the last two words with air quotes. "Because I can't possibly get married at a bar. It's just not done. I told her that's not what I want, but she has no intention of listening to me. My wedding was all planned. I just needed a dress. But apparently there's a whole other plan going on around me that I'm not even a part of. I don't even know how she manages to pull this stuff off."
"But wait," Nikki said. "She knew about your plans to get married at the pub. You told everyone right after you guys got engaged. You've been planning this all winter. How is she going around you?"
"Because she's Patricia Connor, and she always does exactly what she wants. Besides, she told me she wasn't listening in the first place," Stan said. "According to her, she was waiting for me to come to my senses. But now she's realized that I haven't, and I probably won't, and she has to take over and launch her evil plan."
"Huh." Nikki got up to refill her wineglass. "Yeah, I guess you're screwed. And no chance of other people bumping her out of all these holds, I guess, since it is Frog Ledge, not New York City. I'm sure she has a lot of influence over a church. Especially since she's the mayor's wife. What does Jake's family think of all this?"
"They're pretty easygoing. I mean, I think Jake's parents would love the whole church wedding, but at the same time they recognize that it's not what we want."
"Listen. Don't let this all ruin your wedding. You get to marry Jake. I know how happy that makes you," Nikki said. "Right? I mean, the ceremony is what it is. You'll still do the party at the pub, and that will be what everyone remembers. Especially with a big Irish family like his."
Despite herself, Stan smiled. "Yeah. You're right. I'm so lucky. I can't believe I'm marrying Jake." It had been like a fairy tale when he'd proposed to her during the Frog Ledge holiday stroll over Christmas. He'd caught her completely by surprise when he'd popped the question inside her newly opened pet patisserie, Pawsitively Organic. She'd been more than happy to say yes.
Ever since she'd met Jake nearly two years ago, right after moving to Frog Ledge, she'd been hopelessly in love with him. Even from the beginning when she tried to convince herself she wasn't, or that it would never work, or couldn't last. From the moment she'd walked into McSwigg's, Jake's Irish pub in town, she'd felt like she'd finally come home.
And Nikki was right. She wasn't letting anything get in the way of that happiness. This was the start of the rest of their lives, and she wouldn't let a silly evening with some cheesy stripper or an argument over where the ceremony would be held ruin the most important thing — how they felt about each other.
"Okay. Point taken, Nik. I'm not letting any of them ruin this. So, Caitlyn and my mother can do whatever they want — well, within reason — and I'm going to enjoy myself no matter what. Because it's not the day that matters most, it's everything that comes after. Right?"
Nikki nodded enthusiastically. "There you go. You just keep that attitude and everything will be fine."
They both spun around as Jake walked in, Duncan and Gaston bounding next to him. The Weimaraner and Australian shepherd went to work with Jake every day at the pub, while Scruffy and their pit bull Henry usually hung with Stan at the patisserie.
"Hey! I didn't even hear the door." Stan got up and walked over to Jake. He hugged her tight, enveloping her in his familiar warmth. He smelled like outside. And faintly of French fries. "Done at the pub early today?"
It was Thursday, and Jake was taking the night off, which meant he spent the day at the pub doing prep work so his staff could run the place easily and effortlessly later. Stan had closed up Pawsitively Organic at four today, leaving her the afternoon with Nikki and the evening with her fiancé. Stan and Jake had planned to go out for dinner. And probably talk about wedding plans. Theirs, not Patricia's.
"Yeah, the lunch rush wasn't really a rush today so we got a lot done early." Jake kissed Stan, then headed to the fridge. "So what attitude? Hey, Nikki," he added, waving at her.
Nikki saluted him from her chair. "Stan's attitude. Her positive, uplifting attitude toward her family," she said with a wink.
"Uh-oh." Jake uncapped his bottle of water and took a swig. "What's going on now?"
"They're just trying to run the show. Nothing we hadn't expected." Stan tried to shrug it off. "My sister threw a fit when I told her I didn't want a bachelorette party. So now I'm having one."
Jake laughed. "You expected anything less?"
Apparently Stan was the only one who kept underestimating her family. "I guess I thought I could talk sense into her." Stan sighed. "I was wrong."
"Of course you were. There was no way you were dodging that bullet. Plans have been well underway for a while."
Stan stared at him. "They have? And you knew about this?"
"Sweetie. The whole town does." Jake regarded her with a touch of pity.
Stan whirled on Nikki. "What aren't you telling me?"
Nikki raised her hands in a gesture of surrender. "Hey. I'm not in charge here. I've tried to have input where I could because I know what you like. Frankly, it didn't matter. Caitlyn is calling the shots, and everyone else is going along with them. Mostly because they've been threatened to within an inch of their lives about what will happen if they don't."
Stan paled. "That doesn't make me feel confident."
Nikki shrugged. "I promise I'll try to buffer you as much as I can. Okay?"
"Fine. Great," Stan said. "I guess that's all I can hope for."
"Right. So, what are you doing tomorrow night?" Nikki winked at her.
Stan paled. "Tomorrow? That's when she's planning it? She knew all along she was doing this whether or not I agreed to it, didn't she?" Stan shook her head. "Man, this is what I get for trying to think the best of people. When? Where?"
"Jeez. I can't tell you everything. I just wanted to give you a heads up of when it was," Nikki said. "You cannot let on that I did. Seriously, Stan. She'll have my head. She wants to catch you completely off guard."
Stan looked at Jake. He barely managed to hide his smile behind a cough. "It's going to be fine," he said. "Really, Stan. How bad can it be?"CHAPTER 3
Since she couldn't sleep anyway wondering what her sister had in store for her, Stan was up and out of the house early Friday morning, Scruffy and Henry by her side. She had a lot of work to do, and since she was going to be whisked away on some crazy outing later, she figured she needed a head start.
Stay positive. Stan knew she should feel blessed and lucky. Her sister and her friends loved her enough to do this for her, right? Some people didn't have anyone who wanted to throw them a party. Still, if she didn't know her sister so well, she might not be so nervous. If Nikki was running the show, she'd feel much more comfortable. Nikki understood her. It was why they'd been friends for so many years. But Caitlyn? She meant well, but she and Stan were definitely very different people. Even though moving to Frog Ledge, divorcing her banker husband, and falling for a down-to-earth chef had tamed her a bit, Caitlyn still tended to think about things as a high-society girl. She liked fancy parties, expensive venues, showy displays. She was her mother's daughter, through and through.
Stan, by contrast, was not.
She pulled into the parking lot of Izzy Sweet's Sweets, rolled the windows down for the dogs, and promised them she'd be right back. Stan hurried inside, mouth already watering for one of Izzy's lattes. Izzy's was her favorite place in town. Well, next to the pub and her own shop. But she'd fallen in love the first weekend she'd moved here, when Izzy had joined the contingent of neighbors welcoming Stan to town. She had brought a basket of her gourmet chocolates, coffees, and teas. She and Izzy had also hit it off and become fast friends.
"Morning Stan!" Betty Meany, the town librarian, waved frantically from a table in the corner. Betty was a tiny little thing with a personality larger than the whole town. She dressed like a boss too — always wearing the latest styles, her hair trendier than most of the millennials in town. Today she had a red beret perched on top of her short, spiky white hair, the one splash of color in her otherwise black ensemble.
"Hi Betty." Stan waved back and got in line. Izzy and her longtime employee, Jana, worked the counter, Izzy taking the orders and Jana busy behind the machines. Stan never knew where to look first. The pastry cases were brilliant in the morning, overflowing with freshly baked Danish, muffins, cinnamon buns, and other goodies. But the chocolate cases made Stan swoon.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder, She Meowed"
Copyright © 2019 Liz Mugavero.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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